Neil Blomkamp. How the mighty have fallen. From his brilliant early shorts, to the ground breaking District 9 and the at least philosophically interesting Elysium, comes Chappie.
The plot plays out a bit like a mash-up between Short Circuit and Robocop. In the near future
Detroit Jo-burg is descending into violent anarchy. The only solution: fully automated, super-robot police force. However one rogue scientist successfully reprograms a broken droid so that it attains true artificial intelligence. Violent wackiness ensues. Like I said, Robocop crossed with Short-Circuit, with a side order of metaphor-for-kids-in-broken-families.
Now that’s not a problem, but the film’s total lack of focus and ridiculous character motivations are. It starts out in poor, heads straight through into ridiculous and keeps on going so far it nearly doubles back around to clever again. This is one of those films where if you accidentally engage your brain for even a second then the whole thing unravels faster than a jumper sleeve through a fan belt. Into this heady mix Blomkamp throws the big questions – life, death, legacy and answers each one by waving a magic wand and demanding nobody dare look behind the curtain.
So cinema’s had a decent run of excellent robots over the last few years, heck we’ve been spoiled – David in Prometheus, TARS in Interstellar. So how does Chappie rank up? Well, he’s okay, might even be good if given a chance. He’s certainly the character with the most potential, a blank slate onto which humanities worst excesses are projected. Only we never really get to go anywhere with this, instead we get to see him throwing people out of cars while screaming, “Don’t be naughty!” In a robotic South African accent. Which I guess is an okay conciliation prize.
The film’s biggest problem though, may be Die Antwoord. If you don’t know, Die Antwoord is a South African rap group. They make some good music and have a great artistic style. They also apparently murder feature films. Not only do they co-star in the film as protagonists that essentially reiterate their rap personas, their tracks reverberate across the soundtrack and their artwork and buzzwords occupy the entirety of the most significant set. At this point I’m not entirely sure if this is actually Blomkamp film or a multi-million dollar advert for their brand. Whatever it is, the characters they play are jarring and terrible, particularly Ninja (Watkin Jones) who plays a huge egotistical bullying mess that we are somehow expected to sympathize with, which is probably something to do with his customized bright yellow assault rifle.
They can shoulder a lot of the blame, but not all of it. Of the rest of the cast only Sigourney Weaver really pulls anything off as cutthroat corporate player; Dev Patel hardly has anything to work with other than ‘stock scientific dingus’ and Hugh Jackman will never live that mullet down.
It’s not a total write off. The’ visuals, specifically the robot CGI does not disappoint and let’s be honest, the 5 year old in you always has more time for amazing combat droids. Rotating little whatsits, hydraulic hissings, ridiculous cluster munitions. The guy can always be relied upon for a gritty industrial spectacle. They even manage to sneak ED-209’s bigger meaner brother into the flick. Problem is you can get all that from just about every Blomkamp film and while it’s enough to carry a short, it’s not enough to carry a feature.
Everyone should just go home and jam on Wall.E or a YouTube TARS montage and just forget this whole thing ever happened or that this is probably exactly what we should expect from the next Alien installment.